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MORE LOCAL NEWS: 1999

ATHLETES OF THE CENTURY Basketball - Rick Walker By Chuck Stark, Sun Staff

Quiet or not, he got the job done

With the new millennium upon us, it's perhaps only a coincidence that West Sound's basketball player of the century happens to teach computer classes.

And it's not going to surprise people who know Rick Walker that he's already thinking about ways of using computers to reach out to young people.

Now 43, and after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee last April, Walker knows he can't play basketball forever.

"And I can't coach forever," said Walker, the boys basketball coach at King's West who founded a Kitsap County-based sports ministry, Sports Beyond, a decade ago.

"Maybe in the future I'll get involved in a ministry through computers," Walker said. "When it comes to what really interests young people today other than sports, it's computers. People love to create Web sites and use them to communicate to each other."

Despite the distraction of coming from a family beset by divorce, Walker always has been well-grounded and has known what he wanted in life.

"Help young people understand God's plan for their lives using sports," Walker said. "That's really my mission field. That's what I'm meant to do."

If it sounds like Rick Walker, local basketball legend, is almost too good to be true, well, read on.

"Of all the kids I ever coached, besides ability, he had character," said Les Eathorne, Walker's former neighbor and high school coach. "I just wished he'd make a mistake, but he never did. He didn't come from the best home life, but he just pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he made it go."

Brant Gibler, who played with Walker at East and at the University of Puget Sound, said,"As a person, as a player, he's who I would want to be like."

Another East High teammate, Barry Cook, said, "He's the kind of guy you get to know in your life, and you look back and think, 'I hope my kids kind of turn out like him.' "

Graceful, reliable, unselfish
That Christian wholesomeness remains a huge part of Walker's package, as do the stories about how he played the game.

So graceful and unselfish on the basketball court, where he was a sophomore starter on East Bremerton's state AA runnerup team in 1972 and a dominating 6-foot-5 force the next two years when the Knights went 51-2 and won a pair of state championships.

So steady and reliable during a four-year career at the University of Puget Sound, where he helped the Loggers win an NCAA Division II title during his sophomore year in 1976 and get to the NCAA regional finals on two other occasions. When he graduated as the Loggers' career scoring leader, a lot of people shook their heads and wondered how that had happened.

It wasn't like he was going for 30 and 40 points a night. It was more like 18, 22, 24, 19, 26, 14.

"Walker was the stable guy," Gibler said. "He was never flamboyant, but when you come down and things are kind of rough, you throw it to Rick, and he banks a 15-footer."

He might be a new-age computer whiz, but Walker had a game that would transcend any era.

It was Joe DiMaggio-like.

"Oh, God, yes, he could play," Eathorne said. "He just did it. He didn't attract attention to himself by high-fives and crazy things. He just played. It was a joy to watch him.

"If you were down on floor level and he was running the floor, you'd keep thinking, 'Why doesn't he throw it into gear?' He was running so effortlessly, you really had to watch. I was amazed how he did it running so slow, taking those tremendous strides, covering all that ground.

"He'd get back on defense and somebody would go up with a shot. A lot of kids would foul in that situation. Walker would block it and get it to where he could grab it."

All-American memories
Offensively, he was deadly with a 15-foot bank shot and effective inside, where he was stronger than he looked.

"When he went up to the basket, he took people with him," Eathorne said. "Quite often when they hit him hard, he put it in."

Walker scored 29 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in East's 79-73 semifinal victory over a Cleveland team in 1974 that featured three future NCAA Division I players: 6-9 Jawann Oldham, 6-7 James Woods and guard Carl Erwin.

Walker earned prep All-America honors after averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds his senior year for the 28-1 Knights.

That year, he hooked up in two memorable games with Clint Richardson and the O'Dea Irish. Walker scored 42 points and Richardson, a 6-2 junior who would play in the NBA, scored 38 in East's 87-85 double-overtime victory. The game was played before 350 fans in a tiny Seattle elementary school gym that had metal backboards. At one point in the third quarter, with the score tied at 38, Richardson rifled in seven straight shots without a miss. Walker answered by making six straight.

Later in the season, Walker had 40 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots and often led the fastbreak during an 82-69 victory at East High.

"Those were the best times," Walker said, "because it was with a group of guys you grew up with. Going to the state championship game is as high as you can go in high school, and we got there three times."

Intensity plus humility
Walker, a center in high school, had to learn to play away from the basket in college. It took some adjusting, but five or six games into his freshman season, he was a starter.

Walker appeared laid-back, but he played the game with an inner-fire.

"If you don't have butterflies in your stomach for any game, you're not ready," he said. "I just preferred not to show it on the court or off the court or verbalize it. I didn't see a need to get anybody else more angry at me than they already were.

"You had to keep your composure. I wasn't going to let anybody beat me at the game, but I wasn't mean-spirited about it. Let your play silence them. You have the right to do what you're doing, just do it respectfully, humbly. That's what the game is all about."

That style fits Walker's personality.

"Sometimes, with a quiet personality, you can also play soft. If you ask my teammates, I don't think I was known for playing soft, but I understand where people are coming from when they talk about that," he said. "Today, as a coach, I think there's a need to encourage players to communicate with intensity and play and move with intensity. At the same time, you don't have to be somebody you're not."

Walker, surrounded by all-star casts at East (Gibler, Rich Arena, Clif McKenzie, Mike Walthall, Dan Hegland) and UPS (Gibler, Tim Evans, Curt Peterson), consciously tried to make his teammates look good.

"That's what I want to do," he said. "In doing that, I have an opportunity to play well, too. When you are double and triple-teamed, you have to look for your teammates. When they start playing well, the pressure gets off you. Then you're able to play as a team, not as individuals."

Don Zech, the former Puget Sound coach, said Walker's determination set him apart.

"He wasn't going to be distracted from becoming a better player by lots of different things that were happening around him, whether it was happening within his family or with other players," Zech said. "Rick just continued to play. Probably the resolve he had came from the faith he had as well."

Zech said the older players didn't want to practice against Walker.

"If you didn't play hard, he just beat the heck out of you. That's what made him so good," Zech said. "The way he played, he could have played at any Division I school."

No NBA ... no problem
Walker actually signed a letter of intent to attend Boise State, but Zech made a late recruiting pitch after watching him average 23 points and 17 rebounds during East's four-game tournament run.

Walker took a visit and was impressed. He liked the players UPS had recruited and he took a second visit.

"I prayed about it and really decided I was going to Boise State for selfish reasons," Walker said. "My family enjoys going to games to watch me, and they also had a Young Life Group on campus which helped various outreach groups."

A lot of people thought Walker would get a shot at an NBA career.

Gibler, selected in the eighth round of the NBA draft by Portland, says Walker's unspectacular style, while effective at UPS, probably didn't impress pro scouts.

Walker, naturally, has wondered if he could have made it.

"When I look back, yeah, I could have been an Adrian Dantley. He was not that tall," Walker said of the former all-star forward. "But he was smart and effective in what he did. He wasn't flashy, but he got the job done. That's basically the kind of player I was: go out and get the job done. I was not fancy, but I could get it done. How long that could last, I don't know ... we'll never know."

Walker has no regrets. He feels he's doing what he was put on earth to do.

"I don't know if I'm really that good of a coach," he said, crediting King's West assistant Al Gleich for being "the brains behind the game." Walker's more interested in teaching "lessons about life and shaping character."

Tradition and community
He remembers those trips to Eathorne's open-gym sessions "with all the neighborhood kids" as an elementary and junior-high student.

"We'd just watch," said Walker, who was in the same class as Eathorne's son Mark and grew up in the same neighborhood. "Les lived right behind us. Being a kid and being able to go to the gym on those special times, you'd really get a feel for what it's like when you got old enough to play."

Walker continues the tradition at King's West, opening the gym's doors Sunday afternoons.

He remembers how basketball helped get him through some tough times.

"Coming from a divorced family, there was always, 'What house am I going to?' " Walker said. "My parents were very supportive, but it's tough for a young person to sort that through.

"But again, there was a community, a basketball community, and there was the neighborhood and the church," said Walker, who met his wife, Bev, through a Christian group. They have two children son Luke is a freshman at Western Baptist and daughter Bekah is a junior at King's West. "There was a central community there that I felt supported by especially coaches.

"The role of a coach today is so important. I don't know if many understand the impact they can have on kids' lives. How you respond to them; how you develop the team unit. ... That was the one thing that brought my family together. Basketball was the chance for us to see each other and interact with each other."

Our society is still absorbed with its sports icons and Walker's one of the best to pass through West Sound.

Published in The Sun: 12/28/1999

 
 

 

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